I was a little late to the computer-role-game-playing party growing up. I remember looking up at Wizardry boxes: the dragon emblem wrapped around a diamond and Werdna's glaring red eyes from beneath the outlined fringes of his hooded cloak. Or taking in Infocom's amazing artwork that sat only a row below, like the white, plastic facemask thing they had for Suspended that stared at everyone looking at it. Yeah, that was a little creepy.
During the “golden era” of CRPGs in the eighties through the early nineties, you couldn't spring a trap without at least hitting a dozen developers working in the genre. A lot of names stand out, but I whittled the list down to only a few here from the 1980's to keep it manageable. This was a period of time where a lot of the big ideas that we see in CRPGs — and video-game RPGs in general — had first emerged. Titles big and small unleashed themselves upon unsuspecting desktops each year with the kind of product rush that filled innumerable hours with bold adventurers, hidden treasures, and countless quests.
Not everyone had survived the carnage that a changing generation of hardware and market direction brings. Some disappeared for reasons beyond their control, though, the legacy of what they had left behind still persists in every party composed, character skill learned, or dungeon crawled today.
Growing up, CRPGs always held a special fascination for me when it came to gaming. In trying to dig a little into the past, it's been an interesting trip that was part memory and part history as I dusted off old magazines and tried to find what I could on the 'net. Despite the monster power of Google, though, some pages are simply lost to the void or still exist only as hardcopy in someone's collection.
One or two are lumped in here for the sheer body of work that they had brought to the genre, another for giving gifted developers a chance to share the spotlight, and still a few more for their revolutionary ideas. But I included all of them because of the countless hours, pencils, and graph paper that I had gone through in trying not to get lost within their worlds.
If you don't find a developer or publisher in this list that you think should be here, please feel free to drop me a line or a comment with your own pick. This isn't meant to be a comprehensive listing, or an all-in-one approach to the genre. I know that there are a lot more to their stories outside of what I've written here and there are many things that we'll never get an explanation for that just seemed to “happen.” If anyone looking at this has any new insights, personal stories, or simply want to chime in on any corrections, please do.
But this list is also an effort to shed a little more light on their lasting contributions and a few of the games that can still provide endless hours of retro dungeon raiding. Not only because they're a lot of fun but because it's amazing to see just how CRPGs — and video-game RPGs in general — have changed so much over the years.
So buckle on your favorite melee weapon, fasten your hauberk, ready your spells, and check your lockpicks! Let's see what the dusty ruins of the past have to tell us about the future, dear travelers.
Head over to page two for SSI: The Midas Touch
SSI: The Midas Touch
1979 – 2001
The very first impression that I had of Strategic Simulations, Inc. was that they made games for old people. At the time, I had no idea why I should care about the Fulda Gap or superpowers colliding, only that it didn't seem all that exciting. That is until I saw their CRPGs. Those boxes looked a lot more interesting.
What I didn't know then was that they were one of the de facto masters of tabletop-styled simulations on PCs. Looking at their catalog (and wishing they did more CRPGs), it seemed as if they did everything from the Civil War to the Cold War with some football and baseball thrown in between just for giggles. From fighting along the Eastern Front on the Apple to the beaches of the Commodore 64, they were there.
They were also one of the most prolific developers and publishers in PC gaming history with a catalog of well over a hundred and fifty titles stamped with their logo. If you think the WW2 genre is saturated with shooters, you should have seen their catalog during the eighties when it came to turn-based strategy. Yet no one complained.
But they also had a turn on the CRPG circuit with the Phantasie and Questron series — along with many others such as Demon's Winter, the action-adventures Gemstone Warrior and Gemstone Healer, and the post-apocalyptic titles Roadwar 2000 and Roadwar Europa. Stat heavy, tile-based, and packaged with manuals as thick as car instructions, these games immersed the player in each experience with plenty of details to chew over.
While they lacked in looks, that only left our imaginations and what their writers packed into the manuals to fill in the blanks. The one for Gemstone Healer came complete with a diagram done in an arcane style that also doubled as a hint guide for what to do.
Their biggest coup was in scoring the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons license from pen-and-paper RPG publisher TSR. So named because of the gold-colored paper used to label the boxes, the “Gold Box” series would prove to be one AD&D's biggest splashes on PCs until the arrival of Bioware's Baldur's Gate under the Interplay label almost a decade later.
SSI opened up TSR's worlds to players with fancy graphics, turn-based tactical planning, and all of the nitty gritty details stuffed into every statistic. It would be the biggest impression that AD&D would make on CRPGs in years — if not for the gameplay, then for the sheer body of work that would follow.
For players that had never touched the tabletop version but had a PC, it was a great way to get a taste of TSR's worlds without having to find a group, deal with temperamental dungeon masters, or buy all of the rulebooks. In my case, it was a little of each. The releases came with a manual that explained how the gameplay systems work and described the mysteries of THAC0 (to hit armor class zero). But they would often include an illustrated “Adventurer's Journal” detailing the monsters, D&D concepts, and the journal entries that would be referenced within the game as a form of copy protection.
The games had also recycled their engines to a degree unheard of today and leveraged storytelling and AD&D mechanics to create memorable scenarios that stood on their own; although, they started to show their age with later installments. Other titles had also debuted without gold boxes, such as the Dark Sun series and SSI's later partnership with Westwood which produced Hillsfar and Eye of the Beholder 1 and 2. The Dark Sun titles in particular demonstrated SSI's streamlining of the gameplay from the Gold Box series of titles, but never capitalized on these changes — something that Bioware would take advantage of later on with their Infinity Engine.
SSI had even developed its own world with the steampunkish land of Aden introduced through Thunderscape and Entomorph after losing the TSR license in the early nineties; although, they never enjoyed the same level of success even if Entomorph wasn't that bad. As decent as they were, though, they didn't seem to do much to establish SSI's post-TSR identity as a CRPG shop that could survive without them.
So they refocused on their roots as a strategy company developing and publishing deeply detailed wargames such as Steel Panthers, Panzer General, and Silent Hunter. Unfortunately, titles such as Bullfrog's Populous along with Westwood's revolutionary Dune 2 and the Command & Conquer series changed the landscape of tactical gaming despite their critically acclaimed — yet increasingly niche — efforts.
The storied developer appeared to die a slow death in the mid to late nineties. Even with conversions of several of its Gold Box titles on the Nintendo Entertainment System early on, SSI was forced to compete against Japanese RPG houses that also flooded this new market with games that proved to be both more accessible and entertaining for a new generation of players.
Later, as hunger for the kind of statistics-heavy wargaming that SSI excelled at producing began giving way to the popularity of the real-time strategy genre, it became more difficult to keep up with its rivals. Although its games would continue to be popular among hardcore tacticians, the level of dominance and the vast number of titles it once produced had steeply eroded.
SSI was eventually bought out by Mindscape in '94 under which it produced several impressive titles such as the sequel to Panzer General. After changing hands several more times, mostly through the acquisition of its parent such as Mindscape, it eventually landed at Ubisoft who only used the SSI name on one or two games before it was finally retired in 2001.
All in all, SSI had a very successful run. Its games may not have been the most popular — or the easiest to get into as they were often aimed at a more adult crowd — but the quality of its work speaks for itself with every armchair general and D&D grognard. SSI passed quietly into history on what could arguably be considered a high, though muted, note.
Check back in a week for the next installment: Origin Systems: We Create Worlds. See two more SSI ads and further reading on page three.
After having simulated every battle known to history, SSI started making up stuff to fight over. Well, I'm only kidding about the "every battle" part.
Because it needs to be said again: badass box art.